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Originally published Monday, November 26, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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Don't go for perfection — adjusting your holiday expectations

Therapist Tony Hacker provides some clues and tips for managing your holiday expectations.

Tony Hacker Special to The Seattle Times

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This time of year, our thoughts inevitably turn to the holidays. Perhaps you're in the midst of planning your holiday celebrations, or maybe you're just trying to steer clear of them altogether.

In thinking about your particular celebration situation, it is a good idea for you to anticipate just how you want to celebrate. This isn't as simple or as self-centered as it may sound. As advertisers bombard us, and family demands press upon us, it is difficult for the holidays to meet our expectations. Sometimes, it's even hard to know what our expectations — or wishes — for the holidays are.

It can be a challenge to get what you want out of the holidays, while not feeling done in by the whole process. But it's important to keep in mind that if you can make the holidays work for you, you're actually more likely to be generous and giving to others, as well.

So, here's something that may help: the more closely your holiday plans match what's likely to happen, the more enjoyable your holidays are going to be. To make the holidays yours, begin by imagining what you want them to be like. Now, take a step back and evaluate if what you want matches what's most likely to happen.

Many of us anticipate or hope for a wonderful, even ideal holiday, sometimes re-imagining those from the past — a particularly warm family gathering, a delicious and joyful meal, memories of a special holiday away.

However, for the coming holidays it is important that you adjust your expectations to your present circumstances. For instance, if you've had life changes since the last holiday season — a new relationship, baby, recent separation, someone moving away, a family member who's died — you'll need to adjust your expectations for the holidays.

In anticipating the upcoming holidays, you may notice that your feelings seem to contradict what you expect or hope for. For example, you may be planning a happy celebration, but are feeling down anticipating it, even dreading what's expected of you.

Holidays inevitably bring up memories of the past. But because feelings are remembered differently from visual and sensory information, you may not be able to put your finger on why you're feeling down when you feel you should be happy. Sometimes, what's left of a memory is only a feeling, with no image or scene connected to it. This is why now, in the present, the way we remember holiday scenes from the past may not match up with how we felt emotionally back when those memories were laid down.

So, don't let your fantasy-ideal drive your holiday planning. Think about what you want and adjust your holiday expectations accordingly. If your holiday plans include aspects that you anticipate won't line up with what you feel you really want, change your plans.

After all, the holidays are for you, too. The people you care about, and who also care about you, will want you to anticipate your holidays with pleasure.

Tony Hacker, Ph.D. is a Seattle area psychologist who sees individuals and couples in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. His email is: tahackerphd@gmail.com

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